This is the fourth in a series of posts that describe how we got to where we are today. You can read the first post about the long process of getting my son’s ASD diagnosis here and the second post about my fight to get my son an EHC Plan here here. The third post about the years my son was stuck in his mainstream Primary school can he found here.
As soon as my son had an EHC Plan I had to apply for secondary schools straight away.
Because of the timing I was fully aware this was going to happen so I had spent the previous months visiting every possible school option I could think of.
I had ruled out mainstream straight away. Having visited two and spoken to the SENCOs at both I knew my son just wouldn’t cope with the amount of children or change involved with everyday school, even if he had support.
I looked round or contacted all the Specialist schools that I could find. I started to realise there wasn’t actually an option in the area that suited my son. You see he is academically very bright and perfectly capable of achieving a full range of good GCSE grades if he is in the right environment. He also has very complex needs with his Autism and Sensory Processing Difficulties. The majority of SEN schools and Autism specific schools were either not able to provide the academic education or would have put my son in a position where he was constantly on edge due to the behaviour of other children. The other option available to us was an Autism unit in a mainstream secondary school, but again they would not have been able to meet my sons needs as for most of the day they just supported the children in the classroom and he would not have coped.
I was getting worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a suitable school at all, when I stumbled across an independant specialist school. I went to look around and immediately knew this was where my son needed to be. There were twenty children in the secondary school with a maximum of eight in each class. There was a high teacher to pupil ratio and great clear reward systems in place. The school environment was calm and naturally lit with large windows in each classroom. The children were taught a full range of academic subjects at an individual pace and alongside this there was a large emphasis on teaching social and life skills. The dining rooms were small and quiet and teachers ate with the children. It was absolutely perfect for my son in every way I could think of and I decided then to do anything I could to get him into the school.
The time came to fill in the form for my parental preference choice of school. I was sent a comprehensive list of all the specialist provisions in the area and the school I wanted wasn’t on there. I wrote it on the form anyway and there began my battle!
From that day onwards I was in constant communication with the LEA assessment team and also the school I wanted my son to attend.
Initially I rang the assessment team and they told me they had on their system that my son would be attending the same mainstream provision as his sister! He would never cope there and even the school had confirmed this. I very firmly told them they needed to take that off the system and that I wanted my son to attend the other school. They told me they would find out if my choice could meet his needs and get back to me.
I rang the school I wanted a few weeks later and they told me they were sure they were able to meet my sons needs and that they had also communicated that to the assessment team. They asked the assessment team if they could start assessing if their school would be suitable for my son.
I heard nothing so I rang the assessment team and was told that the school I wanted had said they couldn’t meet my sons needs. I knew this was untrue because I had spoken to the school the previous day. I told them so and they said that was what was on their system. I immediately rang the school who said that was untrue and they re-emailed the assessment team to ask to meet my son with the view to him possible going to their school.
I rang the assessment team and they said they were arranging for the school to meet my son.
A couple of weeks later I heard that a different school were going into my sons primary school to assess my child. This was a school that had previously told me there was no way they could meet his needs and I also had that in writing so I wasn’t too worried. I was, however, confused why the assessment team had told that school they could assess my son and yet they had not allowed my choice of school who were asking to assess him.
I rang up the assessment team and was told they were just looking at other options to make sure they got the right school. They also told me that they were arranging for my choice of school to assess my son. I asked them which options they were looking at and was told the names of three schools, one of which had already assessed him and said no. I clarified that they were the only schools they were looking at and was assured they were.
I put in writing the evidence I had that the two remaining schools couldnt meet my sons needs and sent it to the assessment team. This included written evidence from the schools informing me they wouldnt be able to meet his needs.
The assessment team still arranged for both the schools to assess my son and still didn’t arrange for my parental preference to assess him.
I rang and asked why and was told by the assessment team that as the school I wanted my son to go to was independent they would need to exhaust all other options before going with parental preference. They told me that if the schools that had assessed him said no then they would go with parental preference.
I heard nothing. The other children in my sons class knew by now where they were going in September and it was near to the end of term. My son is a child that really struggles with change and would need a period of settling in to a new school and this was starting to look more and more unlikely. I started to get very worried.
It was a Friday morning and I rang the school I wanted my son to attend. They told me they were pressuring the assessment team but had heard nothing. I rang the assessment team. They told me that the other schools had said no, so they were looking at parental preference. They assured me that they would be in touch with my choice school that day to get them to assess my son.
At three O’Clock that day I got a call from the SENCO at my sons primary school. She was worried because she had literally just had a call from a head teacher of a school neither of us had heard of, to say they were coming in to school at 9am Monday morning to assess my son! I immediately rang the assessment team and was told that they had asked this other school a few weeks ago. On paper they had said they could meet my sons needs so they had agreed for the head to assess my son! No One had mentioned this school to me in any previous call including that morning when I had been assured they had exhausted all options and were going to let my parental preference school assess my son.
I immediately looked up the new school on the internet. It was a behaviour school for excluded children. I rang them up to try and get hold of the person assessing my son. They had left for the day. I asked what questions I could on the phone and arranged to go and look around the following Tuesday.
I wrote to the assessment team expressing my initial concerns that the school was unsuitable and that the fact it was an hour away would be a potential problem but I hadn’t even heard of the school, let alone seen it so I tried to keep an open mind about it until I had.
Tuesday came. My sons SENCO wasn’t sure how his assessment had gone the day before. She had tried her best to let them know about my son but hadn’t been prepared as it had been sprung on her last minute.
As I drove up to the school in question I didn’t think it looked too bad but the distance concerned me. My son suffers from separation anxiety and travel sickness. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take him to school because of work. The thought of him on transport getting more and more stressed and sick wasnt a nice one.
I nervously walked into the school. I was asked to sit and wait in the dingy reception area. To my left was a locked door and behind the door I could hear a man shouting very loudly “if you ever want to get back into mainstream you will need to buck up your ideas”. I started to worry.
The head teacher met me. She was actually really nice. When I asked her if she thought her school could meet my sons needs, she told me that she had told the assessment team they could potentially try to meet his needs, but there were probably better schools for him. She proceeded to show me round the school.
As we walked down the dark corridor with unfinished ceilings and bare walls, she carried with her a large bunch of keys. Each classroom door was locked. In my mind I started to liken the place to a prison.
The children in each class were doing very simple work which my son had done years ago. They were shouting back and forward with the teachers in a sarcastic banter. I got the impression this was the norm. As the head teacher locked the door to one of the classrooms behind us, I told her that I didn’t think my son would manage in that environment. I explained that he is very literal and doesn’t understand sarcasm, he has Hyperacusis so the shouting would hurt his ears and that he would need more challenging work. She told me my son wouldn’t be in the classroom and that, because of his needs, he would be in a nurture room. I asked to see the nurture room. The nurture room, again locked, was smaller than the other rooms with two desks and a teacher. It transpired that my son would be locked in this room for all lessons. He would be in there at lunch due to not coping in the dining room and he would be in there for break times because they wouldn’t be able to support him in the playground.
I asked what would happen if my son had a melt down and was told he would be punished for his actions and I would be called. I asked what would happen if the journey to school and the thought of being locked up all day was too much for him and he started refusing school. The head told me she fully expected my son to be one of those that stayed at home and did one English and one Maths assignment a week online.
I couldn’t wait to get out of that place, it was horrible! I wrote a very detailed letter to the assessment team explaining why they couldn’t meet my sons needs and also to make known that I was aware the school had told them they weren’t the best place for him.
The next day I got a call from the assessment team. My sons case worker said she was letting me know that they were naming the prison school (my words) on my sons EHC Plan. I told her I wanted to appeal and she said I needed to wait for the letter but she thought I might say that. It was the end of June by this point.
I knew I needed to fight so I cut down my work to part time and I worked day and night gathering as much evidence as I could.
I had written backing from my sons Paediatrician, his Psychologist from CAMHS, the CAMHS Educational Psychologist, my sons school SENCO, Parent partnership and even the prison school’s taxi company who said they couldn’t transport him safely.
I found out statistics for both the prison school and my parental preference, I checked OFSTED reports. I found government documents on what makes a school suitable for Autistic children and made documents comparing both schools to this. I gathered evidence about future costs if my son went to the wrong school and anything else I could think of.
I decided to try mediation before the appeal. I asked my sons SENCO to be present and also Parent Parnership sent a case worker to provide support. The mediator was meant to be independant of both parties but was also employed by the LEA so I had my doubts. I was meeting with the head of the LEA assessment team. I took a very large folder of evidence marked “Tribunal evidence folder one” and a pre prepared written statement so I didnt forget what I wanted to say.
I was so nervous but I wanted to get the message across that I would take this as high as it would go and I wasn’t giving up. The meeting was tense. No One touched the plate of biscuits in the middle. I put my case across first. Then my sons SENCO put hers across. She and I got belittled by the head of the assessment team many times with no intervention from the mediator. She tried to make out that my son was below average academically and made the SENCO sound stupid when she was trying to get across that he was actually above average and currently the highest achiever in his year group in some subjects.
The head of the assessment team tried to tell me my son was clearly fine in mainstream because he had been in mainstream all his primary education. I insisted he was in the wrong place then and not coping and she even said to me “well why didn’t you get an EHC Plan earlier then?” If you read my earlier posts you will know I had been trying for years!
I forced her to take my comparison between the government document and the two schools and a written document on how my parental preference school would meet my sons needs. She pretty much said nothing other than the reason they had chosen not to give parental preference was the cost and the fact the place was already funded in the other school. She started to re-visit another school that had said they couldn’t meet needs as another option. At one point she even admitted that their own Educational Psychologist had advised against placing my son in the school they had decided to send him to!
The mediator closed the meeting by making both parties sign to agree that the head of the assessment team would get back to me within a week to let me know if they would reconsider the school place. As I left I told the head of the assessment team that I did not envy her job. That it must be so difficult to have the power to make or break a child’s future, by choosing whether to put them in the right school, or forcing them to attend the wrong school, because of funding.
The week passed. I was not surprised to hear nothing. I carried on gathering evidence incase I had to go to tribunal.
The next week passed and I heard nothing so I rang and was told that they would get back to me the following week. I wrote to my MP, the department of Education and Skills, and the local newspaper. Then, almost miraculously, I had an email from the head of the assessment team telling me they were going to let my parental preference school assess my son the next week, with a view that if they could meet his needs they would fund the place!!
My son was assessed by the school and the head came out to meet me. He was offered a place at the school I wanted him in.
The LEA then dragged their heels getting his EHC Plan sorted and confirming to the school that he could go there. We ran out of time for my son to do any sort of transition before the end of term but during the summer holidays we received confirmation.
My son started at his new school last September and it is so perfect for him that I was glad I managed to fight! I will move on to this in part five of our journey.
My heart goes out to anyone going through this, or similar, because I know so many parents who have the same story. I know parents who have ended up homeschooling for years because they aren’t given schools that suit their children. I know children who are not educated at all because they were sent to schools which couldn’t actually meet their needs. I know children, like my son who have ended up suicidal due to being in the wrong school. The system is not setup to help children like mine. The process of getting diagnosed, applying for EHC Plans, and choosing the right school is too tainted by funding issues. Children are being placed in the wrong schools for the wrong reasons all the time!
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